Lady Gaga's Right: Computer Speakers Are Making Your Favorite Music Worse
As a general rule, I don't like to be lectured by Lady Gaga. This is not to say that I haven't earned a lecture, since she's a rich and famous superstar who's touched millions of kids who feel sad and alone and I'm a guy who listens to episodes of Fibber McGee and Molly in the shower -- just that I don't enjoy the prospect. But even I have to admit that her recent tweets begging those sad-and-alone-feeling fans of hers to not listen to ARTPOP on computer speakers, where 99 percent of the world's recorded music is now heard, are dead on.
It's not that "SPEAKERS ON YOUR COMPUTER are NOT ACCEPTABLE." It's just that crappy laptop speakers are a terrible way to hear music you love, or want to love, for the first time.
I'll admit to the ultimate laptop-speaker sin, just to get us started: The first time I heard Pet Sounds, I was playing 128 kbps files from the iTunes Store (back when they were DRM'd) on my Powerbook G4.
I loved it, luckily. But if you're wondering how much nuance 2005-era laptop speakers can transmit, try listening to "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" with your hands over your speakers, or with your headphones a few inches away from your ears. (Or on your 2005-era laptop, I guess.)
It's not a great experience. But the real problem comes when the album in question isn't a canonical rock classic with a fascinating backstory. What happens when your first listen of a really-pretty-good album is on your laptop, while you're reading Buzzfeed and trying to get some work done?
I had this problem most recently with Modern Vampires of the City, Vampire Weekend's third -- and most sedate, least immediate -- album; after a few listens I found myself a little bored by anything that wasn't "Diane Young."
But those few listens had all come while I was in my office, via a pair of earbuds that I may or may not have gotten from the magazine pocket of a Frontier Airlines plane.
It's important to maintain some perspective here -- arguments about the sound qualities of vinyl aside, in terms of sound fidelity we're way ahead of the setups with which most of the classics were originally heard. We're not using AM radio or Geo Metro cassette decks.
But that leads us to the other thing that's dangerous about computer speakers: Just how easy it is to play any song you want on them.
The real problem with my Modern Vampires listening on release day wasn't that my computer speakers don't sound very good. They don't, but that wasn't the issue. The real problem was that all the while -- as I played and replayed it -- I was busy editing articles about other bands and/or thinking about where I was going to eat lunch.
Rather than just accepting the annoying song playing back inside our heads, or turning on the radio and getting a random feed of background noise, we're able to make any album we want into background noise, without so much as a CD tray to open. It's incredibly easy to listen to music now -- putting it on is a sitting-down-at-the-computer reflex, something that requires no more thought than opening up tabs for Facebook and Twitter.
I've never been the kind of music fan who has to sit in an easy chair in an ersatz sensory deprivation chamber and commune with an album, and I'm not saying that's what's necessary to truly enjoy music. (I do most of my best listening on the interstate.)
But if music doesn't always have to be the most important thing you're doing at a given moment, you're still doing new-to-you music a disservice when it's not important to what you're doing at all.
Next time I try out a new album -- whether it's Lady Gaga's or not, and whether it's something I've been waiting for like Modern Vampires or a random suggestion from a friend or a new band in town -- it might still be on computer speakers. But I'll try, at least, to make it the second-most-important thing I'm doing at the moment.
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